AURORA | Excited giggles typically don’t act as the soundtrack for the scenarios in which Evelyn DelaTorre and her cousin, Galilea, found themselves in last Thursday.
Then again, most 14- and 15-year-old girls don’t spend their summer vacations responding to mock police scanner reports, questioning crooks and firing simulated rounds from a dummy Glock pistol.
But such was the scene at the city’s new police and fire training facility as the pair of high school underclassmen ran through several digital training situations in which they popped off artificial rounds at projections of suspicious offenders trying to steal bikes, cars and break into warehouses.
Along with Galilea’s 13-year-old brother, Rodrigo, The DelaTorres were participants in the Aurora Police Department’s first-ever international and immigrant teen academy — an offshoot of the department’s popular teen academy — intended exclusively for children of metro-area immigrants.
Held as a pilot program for three days last week, the new academy gives participants a chance to learn more about police work, including use of force, driving protocols and the K9 unit, according to Matt Green, an APD officer who has been on assignment as a school resource officer at Overland High School and Prairie Middle School for the past several years.
Green said that most of the enrollees in the new international teen academy were made aware of the program through a canvasing effort APD coordinated with the Aurora Welcome Center, which offers English classes and other services to immigrants and refugees near Del Mar Circle in north Aurora.
The DelaTorres joined the program after Eveleyn’s mother, who came to Aurora from Jalostotitlán, Mexico 15 years ago, learned about the academy during her regular English classes at the Welcome Center.
Galilea said that her experience at the academy changed some of her perspectives about police.
“We always think that the policemen are, like, the bad guys, but after this, we know they have to protect themselves and they have reasons why they shoot,” she said.
That increased understanding is precisely why APD implemented the new program, according to Green. He said that while the curriculum of the new program is largely an abbreviated version of the department’s prior teen academies, the department wanted to provide a separate offering to an undeserved portion of the population.
“We’d like to see it turn into the same as our other teen academy where … kids just get to know police officers and break down those barriers or walls that we have,” he said.
Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz said that efforts to educate school-aged kids regarding the role of police has grown increasingly crucial in recent years.
“When there’s so much going on around the country with Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland and everything else, everybody’s got their preconceived notions about what law enforcement is,” he said. “We want to be able to have that opportunity to really be able to sit down and explain to folks, especially young people, what law enforcement is, and just as important, what it’s not.”
Although the recent international academy was a first-of-its kind pilot, the department already has plans to expand the program as well as its existing teen academies, which had a record-high 72 enrollees last year, according to APD Sergeant Paul Pool.
“We’ve done this on a shoe string and also on very little notice, so we know if we can improve and increase our resources…throughout our organization as well as others, this could truly be off the chain,” Pool said.
Metz added that the academy could act as a new recruitment tool for the department going forward.
“We’ve got to recruit, and you can’t just look at recruitment six months out, you’ve got to look three, four, five years out,” Metz said. “If we can start getting some of these young people interested in law enforcement and give them that first-hand ability to spend time with officers and see them as people versus just somebody in uniform…these are young people who may decide that this is a career for them, and maybe they’ll want to do it right here in Aurora.”
At the conclusion of the first academy, it seemed like the new strategy could be working.
“I wanted to be a firefighter,” Galilea said. “But now I want to be a police officer.”